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The Weight of Time: A Rescue on Denali

The Weight of Time: A Rescue on Denali

August 2015 – Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Talkeetna Air Taxi scenic flight circles the massive south face of Denali which rises 8000 feet from its glacial foundations. The plane – with ten passengers on board – drifts over the Matterhorn-like peaks around the Ruth Glacier, then throttles down and lands. One by one, the passengers climb down the ladder onto the surface of the glacier, shielding their eyes against the blinding glare of the late summer snow pack. One person points up, drawing a line from his memory. He has been here before, almost four decades ago. The other tourists cannot see the youthful zeal of his past in his now middle-aged body. One woman steps aside and moves purposely away from the group. She raises her gaze, whispers a few words, then reaches into her daypack for a plastic vial. The top is removed and with a determined gesture, she flings the ashes into the blue sky. The small cloud  hangs in the air for an eternal moment before settling onto the snow. Thirty-five years ago those could have been my ashes drifting on to this same glacier. Three of us embrace her as silence envelopes the scene. There must be a story here: In fact there are four, but one can no longer be told. Mine can.

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May, 1980 – Talkeetna, Alaska

Mt. McKinley’s climbing season is ramping up. Climbers from a dozen countries unload boxes and duffels, skis and snowshoes, from the luggage car of the Alaska Railroad and move it onto the pickup trucks adorned with flight service logos. The muddy main street of Talkeetna is full of revelers celebrating Alaska Days. Bearded sourdoughs wear foxtail hats as they devour caribou sausages, moose burgers, and mountain blueberry pie. The weather has been dismal for days so frustration hangs in every conversation. Many in the crowd have testosterone-driven plans and the copious alcohol consumption fuels wild-eyed descriptions of the ambitious routes on their agendas. This is a special type of gold rush with some willing to risk their lives for their dreams.

It’s 1980 and Talkeetna is ground zero for American alpinism and I want to be part of that scene. After two years of graduate school and no identified career, I am content – no I’m thrilled – to be living in a VW camper van full of my dirt-bag gear and climbing magazines. A recent convert to climbing, I had just two summer seasons under my belt, but those months in the Canadian Rockies, Selkirks, and St. Elias Ranges had given me enough successes that I was hungry for the bigger stage. The best opportunity was to talk my way onto another trip, so I had become the third, joining Paul and Carl. As with many groups of three, there is an odd person, and that was me.

In Talkeetna, time loses its significance. This far north, true darkness never really comes and the Fairview Tavern never really closes. Then, at 2 a.m. the clouds thin, revealing the rose-tinted hue of sunrise striking the summit of the highest peak in North America. The drinking suddenly stops. Today the glacier flights will go. It is time for the gold rush to begin.

May, 1980 – Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

The flight into the Alaska Range from Talkeetna offered views that transitioned quickly from treeless bogs to jagged granite peaks rising out of rivers of ice, but that scenery was barely visible from my cramped position wedged between duffels in the rear of the Cessna. Soon we were decelerating as the plane dropped altitude and then bumped down onto the glacier. I almost fell onto my knees in awe as I gawked at the dozen peaks that soared a vertical mile out of the ice. Each single peak was more magnificent and daunting than any I had previously seen. We had a month to climb them all! This would be Nirvana.

But Nirvana had to wait, as one low pressure system after another hurled clouds laden with wet snow against the peaks. Elation turned to gloom as endless card games became our mental strategy to alleviate the boredom of tent life in inclement weather. After 12 days spent mostly in damp, clammy sleeping bags  listening to wind and rain and thundering avalanches, my partners announced they were giving up and heading for Kodiak Island to go fishing. I was shattered. With no reason to head home, and – in truth – no home to head to, I resorted to visiting other tents on the glacier in hopes of finding a new climbing partner. As luck would have it, the first tent held Mike Helms, an outdoor gear designer and guide from Olympia. His two friends had also decided to fly out early. The three of them had planned to climb McKinley and Mike was upset about relinquishing that goal. A brief introduction ensued, climbing skills and history were shared, an exchange of my single boots for his partner’s double boots (same size!), and I was packing my gear to join Mike for an attempt of the highest peak in North America! Climbing, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows.

By noon Mike and I had relocated to the crowded landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier which was bustling with a hundred climbers sorting gear for their two- to four-week ascents of Denali. Mike had organized the gear and food already, so after an early dinner, we roped up to start the 10-mile trudge towards the base of McKinley. With loaded packs and each of us dragging a sled full of more gear, we were carrying all we would need for 12 days. At 11 p.m., we set up our tiny tent as the sun cast its alpenglow on the highest peaks.

The south face of Denali: Simon's campsites in blue, Bob's in red

The south face of Denali: Simon’s campsites in blue, Bob’s in red

From this camp our route would deviate from the normal climber’s route, which ascended the less technical West Buttress. Our objective, the Cassin Ridge, was considered one of the premier technical climbs in North America. Our strategy was to move in one push, carrying everything for the climb, up 8,000 feet of steep ice and granite rock cliffs and then descend via the standard West Buttress Route. This “alpine style” ascent of the Cassin Ridge had probably only been done fewer than a dozen times before 1980, and as “journeymen” or average climbers, we were setting our goals to the highest standard. To attempt such a route with a total stranger might seem like a reckless decision, but to Mike and myself, it was simply a challenge not be missed.

On our approach up to our route we crossed paths with two climbers who had even loftier ambitions. Jack Roberts and Simon McCartney were attempting to ascend the unclimbed mile-high wall on the Southwest Face. With climbing resumes that included the North Face of the Eiger in winter, ascents of El Cap’s walls in Yosemite, and first ascents of audacious and dangerous faces in the Alps and the Alaska Range, they were the climbers that we aspired to be. They were the elite. Their cockiness and charisma were infectious. Mike and I were truly awed to be in the company of such maestros.

Three days later with clearing weather, the four of us left the glacier campsite at 12,000 feet with a powerful mixture of exhilaration and apprehension. We carried fuel and freeze-dried food for eight days, along with clothing, sleeping bags, a tent, and our climbing gear. The weight of the pack seemed insignificant compared to the burden of the task in front of us. As I started up the first steep ice gully, I took a moment to turn and see Jack and Simon’s footsteps leading to the base of their daunting objective. My discerning eye picked out their tiny forms in the first cliff band. Then I returned my upward gaze towards the 1000 feet of shiny blue ice that was our first day’s challenge.

Mike in camp, 16000 feet

Mike in camp, 16000 feet

For 8 days we forged a path up the Cassin Ridge. More severe than we had anticipated, the route challenged us in every aspect with its steep ice and vertical steps up the granite cliffs. After an exhausting day of 12 hours of climbing we were fortunate to find a narrow ledge on which to erect our tent. It took another few hours to melt snow for drinking water and to boil our dinners. Before succumbing to much needed sleep, we silently struggled with the demons of doubt that arose like monsters in the closet. There was no retreat in our plan. I laid awake, literally quivering with fear as gusts of wind thrashed the single layer of fabric comprising our shelter.

Our ascent rate slowed considerably as I struggled to  adjust to the altitude. My brain, starved for oxygen, was functioning on a several second delay mode. When tying my boots, I first had to think of grabbing the laces, then think of crossing them, then think of pulling them. We decided to take an unscheduled rest day to allow time for me to acclimatize. The following day we made a miraculous discovery of two gallons of cooking gas stashed from an earlier expedition, a welcome replenishment of  our dwindling supply.

None of these circumstances were unusual for alpinists on difficult routes. Both Mike and I had read inspirational accounts of such climbs but struggling in the reality of such tenuous circumstances was vastly different than reading articles in glossy magazines.

With calm winds and an azure blue sky overhead, we put on all our clothes and departed our campsite,  just a tiny platform chiseled on the ridge crest at 18,300 feet. We were tentative as we took our first steps towards the summit, still 2000 feet above us. The -40 degree cold was piercing but the sun offered an illusion of warmth. The view stretched out over the surrounding peaks to the distant Gulf of Alaska. The angle of the snow slope was moderate and I kicked a step into the crusty surface, rested, inhaled, exhaled, then kicked another step. This grueling process was repeated a thousand times. My altimeter watch recorded an elevation of 19,000 feet. Step, inhale…..

Suddenly my Zen-like mental state was shattered by a human voice. Mike was behind me, his head bowed in exhaustion. I looked upslope and was amazed to see a lone figure jumping and shouting beside a tent. It took us a painfully long 30 minutes of kicking steps to finally reach Jack Roberts and to learn that his climbing partner Simon was semi-conscious in the tent, disabled by what was later diagnosed as cerebral edema. This swelling of the tissues of the brain is caused by rapid ascent in altitude and is worsened with dehydration. They had been successful in completing their very difficult climb, but had run out of fuel and subsequently had no way to melt snow for much-needed water. Jack’s toes were black with frostbite and they had not eaten in days. The four of us were 800 vertical feet below the summit on the remote south face with no radio and only two meager freeze dried dinners between us.

What took place in the next 20 minutes changed the lives of four men. A decision had to be made. One climber was disabled, one had frostbite, the other two were weakened by their arduous ascent.

Simon at 18,000 feet

Simon at 18,000 feet

Mental cognition was less than ideal as a result of the altitude and exhaustion, but in those 20 minutes, we worked out what seemed to be our best option. Mike had been on the West Buttress route previously so he had knowledge of the way down. There would certainly be other climbers on that route. Jack had knowledge of technical rescue systems and his frostbite was severe. He proposed that Mike and he would ascend over the top, descend until they encountered other climbers, retrace their steps to the ridge above to lower ropes to us and pull us over the top! Mike did not want to split away from me, but I volunteered to stay with Simon. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I moved into the tent with Simon, took all the fuel and meager scraps of food, gave Jack a short note to my mother, and then watched them kick steps upward. More than three decades later Mike would recall that when he looked back at us, he thought that he would never see us again. A half hour later they were out of sight and their footsteps had been filled with falling snow.

August, 2012 – Bellingham, WA.

I hit the message button on the phone. Karen and I had been trekking in Austria for a month and there were 12 messages waiting when we walked into our kitchen. “Hello. Is this the Bob Kandiko who saved me on Mt. McKinley in 1980? This is Simon McCartney. Please call this number. I need to talk with you.”

Thirty-four years had passed since I said goodbye to Simon in a hospital room in Anchorage, his arm in a cast, his face black and blue. In the adjacent bed was Jack Roberts with gauze bandages over his feet. Both were flirting with the nurses. Mike was absent from the scene.

I called the number that Simon left, reaching a Hong Kong residence. A distinctive British accent answered.

The three-plus decades that had passed since that hospital room in Anchorage were condensed into a tearful — at times sobbing — flood of memories. He recalled the events of 1980 as if they were yesterday, remembered losing his ability to move as he fell victim to the cerebral edema. He remembered Jack being willing to leave him, alone in the tent, to head up by himself. He was haunted by the memory of his helplessness, slipping in and out of consciousness as I nursed him with warm fluids. But most of all, he remembered the 48 hours that we waited for Mike and Jack to return with the ropes, days of gnawing hunger and the growing realization that no one was coming to rescue us.

May, 1980 – Cassin Ridge, Denali, 19,500 feet

The two days that Simon and I waited on Cassin Ridge were agonizing as the reality of our situation sunk in. We were completely isolated on the steepest and most remote face of the highest peak in North America. Simon was incapacitated. We had no food.

Finally, realizing that our only chance of survival was to make an attempt to evacuate ourselves, we suited up to attempt the final ascent to the summit ridge. I carried most of the weight and kicked steps but Simon simply dropped to his knees unable to stand upright due to his cerebral edema. I jerked tight on the rope attempting to haul him uphill but he collapsed, in tears. The thought of untying the rope and heading up alone crossed my mind but I could not leave Simon to die. Now our only choice was the unthinkable, to descend the length of Cassin Ridge without food and with no gear except a single rope.

That descent started with Simon sliding on the snow as I tethered him with the rope. We spent six grueling days with increasingly weak bodies plunge stepping, rappelling, and at times crawling ever downward.

Bob and Simon enjoy a moment of rest on the descent

Bob and Simon enjoy a moment of rest on the descent

On the third day, we heard the unmistakable sound of an airplane overhead and glimpsed the plane through the clouds. Hearing and seeing the plane at this elevation raised our hopes that our position was known and with renewed optimism I stamped out the word “HELP” in six foot high letters in the snow and positioned the climbing rope in an ‘X’ to mark a possible landing spot for a rescue helicopter. I knew from previous reports that the Army Chinook helicopters had performed rescues at similar elevations in prior years. This location was one of the few sites on the ridge where a helicopter might be able to land so I did not want to descend further. In clear skies and calm winds we waited. Minutes turned into hours as we waited and waited, longing to hear the throb of an approaching helicopter.

As evening approached, our enthusiasm evaporated and we set the tent up, crawled into our cold bags, and without words spoken, accepted that our ordeal was not to end with a quick exit. Tonight would be another without food.

In the morning, we continued down the steepest section of the Cassin Ridge. By now, the lack of food and extreme exertion had caused our urine to become a rust-orange color. At one point we discovered used tea bags in the snow at the site of an old campsite and consumed them as if they were Thanksgiving dinner. We even resorted to trying “toothpaste soup”! But we never lost hope. Giving up was not an option. Then an even bigger miracle than the tea bags: we found two coils of climbing ropes cached on a ledge. These ropes probably saved our lives, enabling us to rappel down places that we could not down climb. Still, we grew weaker and weaker – except for the tea bags and toothpaste, we had eaten nothing for eight days.

Simon being evacuated

Simon being evacuated

Then, when we were totally spent, literally at the end of our rope, four climbers from Pennsylvania appeared like a fata morgana in the snow. They came to our aid, shared their food and tent with us and assisted us down the lower technical section, thereby sacrificing their own summit opportunity. As we reached the main glacier, Simon and I, barely able to walk by now, slipped and tumbled over an unseen ice cliff. Simon fell 50 feet, plunging into a crevasse, breaking his wrist and giving him a concussion. Instead of walking down the remainder of the glacier, he was loaded into a rescue toboggan for an all-night sledge to the airstrip where he was flown directly to the Anchorage hospital.

Ironically and sadly, just before I flew off the glacier I talked with four climbers who had just arrived and were excited to be heading up the Cassin Ridge. I was to learn later that summer that they were never seen again, probably victims of an avalanche.

August, 2012 – Bellingham, WA.

The phone conversation with Simon brought these memories to life with a vividness that startled me. It had all happened such a long time ago. So much water under the bridge. We talked about my decision to stick with Simon instead of untying the rope between us and giving in to the most primitive instincts to survive. His voice cracks as he recalls being unable to stand and having to slide and be lowered as we began our desperate descent. We laugh at our youthful blinders that enabled us to look forward with optimism, imagining what we would do when we got off the mountain instead of giving in to despair. We laugh at our final attempt to trudge down the glacier only to suffer the fall that led to Simon’s toboggan ride.

Simon filled in the blanks in the story, telling me about Jack and Mike’s epic descent after they left us. A storm had forced them into a hurried campsite where they held the tent down throughout the first night fully dressed, convinced the tent would be shredded by the gale. Further down the ridge they passed two dead climbers who had apparently stopped out of exhaustion and never continued.

The second night they encountered climbers with a radio, but the weather conditions were so bad that they couldn’t get it to work. It wasn’t until the third day that radio contact with Park Headquarters had been established and a reconnaissance flight was made, but by then we had already started down. The plane had spotted us on Cassin Ridge but unbeknownst to us, the Army Chinook helicopters that I had been waiting for had all  been grounded due to mechanical problems. Our position high on the isolated ridge made rescue impossible without the choppers.

Mike later described that the knowledge that he had been unable to rescue us from the top of Cassin Ridge had been a “knife twisting in his heart.”

Simon and Bob on Denali, 1980

Simon and Bob on Denali, 1980

Simon and Bob on Denali, 2015

Simon and Bob on Denali, 2015

Simon told me that after that season on Denali he had quit climbing cold turkey, fearing the trajectory he was on would certainly lead to dying in the mountains. He had lost track of Jack, who had continued to climb until his death in 2011, the result of an ice climbing accident. The climbing world had mourned Jack’s passing and climbing blogs buzzed with questions about his long-lost partner who had disappeared from the climbing scene. Simon had eventually been located, obviously too late to reconcile with the partner who had left him on Cassin Ridge.

But Jack’s death had served to unlock the long-buried memories of what had happened those many years before and Simon had emerged like a phoenix, reconnecting with his youthful passion and obsession with climbing. He learned that there was widespread skepticism regarding the veracity of the audacious Alaska climbs that he and Jack had accomplished together. I was his one direct connection to that pivotal period and he needed to talk. By the end of our intense conversation he had defined his mission: He would write a book to recount – and honor – the emotional four years spent climbing with Jack.

August 2015 – Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

Simon, Pam Roberts (Jack’s widow), my wife Karen Neubauer, and myself buckle the seatbelts in the Cessna for a second, private flight over the Alaska Range. The lighting casts long shadows as we cruise over the Ruth Glacier and circle to 14,000 feet. The entire south face of Denali fills our view. It is a presence. Unlike the earlier flight, not a word is spoken as the enormity of the mountain and of our history passes in front of the plane. Simon and I can pick out exact locations of camps and even individual difficult pitches. No one alive is on the mountain this late in the season. We can only imagine the spirits of those who did not return from their climbs. Only the drone of the engine breaks the silence.

Afterword

Mike Helms was located by Pam Roberts in October, 2015. He is a retired law enforcement officer in Snohomish County. The decision made high on Denali and the epic descent on both sides of the mountain left him an emotionally wounded man. The passing of time and reconciling with those involved have healed that wound. On February 27th, 2016, Mike Helms and Bob Kandiko were honored in Washington, D.C. at the American Alpine Clubs Annual banquet. They received the David A. Sowles Award for “Unselfish Devotion to Imperiled Climbers”. Awarded only 45 times since 1981, it is the highest honor given by the club for heroic action for others while sacrificing their climbing objective.

Simon McCartney did write his book. The Bond was published last month by Mountaineers Books and was awarded the Boardman/Tasker Award for mountaineering literature. It has also received the Mountaineering Non-Fiction Award at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABob Kandiko has made Bellingham, WA. and the Pacific Northwest his home for 40 years. Following the mantra, “opportunity is a bird that never perches,” Bob heads to the mountains, the coastline, and the slickrock whenever possible. He will choose the new and unknown — full of uncertainty — because the rewards of these adventures have proven to be richer.

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